By Arndt Peltner
There are a lot of soccer fans in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland, Somalia. Now, fitness centers are getting kids off of the streets and giving them a safe place to play the game.
When the floodlights go on, the muezzin makes his call to evening prayer at the nearby mosque. The kids playing on the astroturf field don’t let it distract them. Said fakes left, breaks right, aims, shoots and scores. The 23-year-old is on the pitch at the Garowe Fitness Center several times a week. He always comes here in the evening after his classes at the Puntland State University. The center provides a clean place to play soccer. And an armed security guard stands at the entrance to make sure that it is also safe.
That is the way things are in Puntland’s capitol Garowe. Security guards wielding machine guns also guard the entrance to the university. The government has even ordered that Western visitors be shadowed by three Kalashnikov-toting “attendants” to ward against kidnappings.
Internationally, the semi-autonomous Puntland region of northeastern Somalia is most well known as a refuge for pirates. A civil war has been raging in Somalia for 25 years – weapons and soldiers are simply a part of everyday life. However, in Puntland and neighboring Somaliland the situation seems to be under control. It is mainly the residents of the Somali capitol Mogadishu that suffer the brunt of bomb attacks and the terror perpetrated by the Al-Shabaab militia. Mogadishu lies to the south, and seems far away.
Soccer inspires – despite civil war and terrorism
Somalis love soccer, it was that way before the war too. Nothing has been able to change that. Not the violence and the terror, not even Somalia’s dismal national team. Currently listed third to last in FIFA’s world rankings, only Eritrea and Tonga are worse than the Ocean Stars from the Horn of Africa. Yet, thanks to satellite technology, German Bundesliga, English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A matches light up TV screens across the country.
In Somalia, soccer is played wherever there is space to do so. Whether that be among bombed out ruins, or in refugee camps where people who have fled terror and drought live. Beyond that, new fitness centers that feature soccer pitches have been sprouting up all across the region over the last year and a half. They can now be found in cities like Somaliland’s capitol Hargeisa, as well as larger cities in Puntland such as Bosaso, Garowe and Galkayo.
‘There was no safe place to play’
The fitness center idea came from the director general of the Ministry of Youth and Sport, Ahmed Abdallah Tigana, who is also responsible for the implementation and management of the project. Tigana fled to Europe in 1991 when the war broke out. Until recently he had been living in England, but sports brought him back to Somalia. Soccer is his passion. He says it always has been.
When the war came, he was playing in the country’s top youth league and was just about to sign a professional contract. But his dream of life as a pro soccer player ended when he sought security abroad. Still, Tigana isn’t bitter about the experience, quite the opposite. He laughs a lot and talks enthusiastically about the state of soccer in his country. “I came back and I realized that something was missing: a safe place to play. So I spoke with business people and was able to persuade them to invest in fitness centers with small soccer pitches,” he says. “A safe place to play, an investment in Somali soccer and a business opportunity to boot.”
Ali Abdi Isse is 32-years-old and runs the Garowe Fitness Center. He confirms Tigana’s statement: “We realized that young people didn’t have anywhere to go. Many left the country or joined radical groups. We wanted to do something about that.” There are two small pitches and an amateur soccer field at his center, as well as a fully equipped workout room, a yoga and aerobic room, a pool table, a foosball table and a cafeteria. The center is open every day, and anyone can come in for a small entrance fee. The center pays for itself completely. Women also play soccer here in the evening. The amateur pitch has been shielded off with plywood panels to keep men in this strict Muslim country from seeing the ladies engage in their sporting activities.
Puntland wants to play on the world stage
Tigana has big plans for soccer in Puntland. And that despite the fact that his ministry only has an annual budget of $8,000 (7,300 euro). Creativity is of the essence, and that is something that soccer enthusiasts show here every day. Last year, Puntland submitted a request to become a member of the world soccer federation FIFA, because according to Tigana, the Somali Football Federation only concentrates its efforts on Mogadishu.Now, many in the semi-autonomous Puntland State of Somalia want to go their own way and thus put the country’s enthusiasm for soccer on a path to success.
Hopes are high. Puntland, and in the longterm a reunified Somalia, seeks to once again play a role in international soccer. The boys and young men that are passing the ball around on this hot November evening attest to that desire.